Books Coffee and Blues in Greenwood

Part of my plan when I decided to go to Vaiden to take pictures on a Saturday afternoon was to try to make it to Turnrow Books in Greenwood, Mississippi before they closed at 6 PM and buy a copy of Michael Ford’s new book of photographs North Mississippi Homeplace, which I had read about online. Scott Barretta, the promoter of all things Mississippi blues-related, had been discussing the book and the film on social media, so I texted him on Facebook to see if he wanted to meet for dinner in Greenwood, but he told me he was going to Tallahatchie Flats to see someone called Ben Wiley Payton. I told him I knew the place and would meet him there.

But the first challenge was to get from Vaiden to Greenwood before the book store closed. The distance didn’t seem that far, but the road from Vaiden to Carrollton seemed to take awhile, and although I left Vaiden by 5 PM, it took until 5:45 PM to get to downtown Greenwood, and so when I got to Turnrow Books, I had little time to browse before they closed. It was just as well, because the store was full of books that I would have loved to have owned, and I had limited money. One of the peculiar things about Mississippi is the number of truly excellent book stores in the state. Square Books in Oxford, LeMuria Books in Jackson, Pass Christian Books in Pass Christian, and of course the store I was at in Greenwood. All of them are always full of treasures and it is hard to avoid spending too much money. Fortunately, Turnrow had plenty of copies of Ford’s book, signed by the author, and I was able to buy one, and then go on my way so they could close up the store.

Down Howard Street was a coffee bar called Mississippi Mo Joe Coffee House, which the people at Turnrow had suggested was likely already closed for the evening, but which I found wide open. There had apparently been a bicycle race in Greenwood on that Saturday, and so the coffee bar stayed open to accommodate the race visitors, and I was able to get a latte before I headed out Grand Avenue into the wilderness along the Tallahatchie River toward Money, Mississippi to the north.

I was headed to Tallahatchie Flats to meet my friend, but unexpectedly, I came upon an historic marker for bluesman Robert Johnson outside a church called Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church. Although I had always been told that the burial location of Johnson was disputed, I decided I ought to stop and take photos at the spot and I did. Apparently, the general consensus now is that Little Zion is in fact the burial place of Robert Johnson, with documentation available to support the contention.

Tallahatchie Flats proved to be not at all far from the Little Zion church, practically walking distance. It reminds one of a Greenwood version of Clarksdale’s Shack Up Inn, with rentable sharecropper shacks, and a big tavern building where Ben Wiley Payton was performing. Tallahatchie Tavern proved to be packed to the rafters with fans, some of them blues lovers and some of them people in town for the bike race. Ben Wiley Payton was not an Americana artist as I had imagined, but a Black bluesman, originally from Mississippi but who had lived in Chicago for a period of time. His repertoire was a mixture of traditional blues and soul and R & B covers, and the crowd was enjoying every minute of it.

The tavern itself was of interest. Scott had told me that it had once been owned in part by Steve LaVere, the blues researcher, and perhaps because of that, it was full of Memphis blues memorabilia on the walls, rare flyers and posters for events which I had never seen. I made sure to take photographs, particularly of a flyer that announced a sort of Barn Dance somewhere out in the Fisherville area, which featured performances from Furry Lewis and a band called Common Law Catfish, which sounded like another one of Jim Dickinson’s concoctions.

I had come to watch and listen, but Scott asked me if I wanted to sit in with Ben Payton, and since the tavern had a worn, beat-up piano that was yet reasonably in tune, I agreed. I ended up having a ball playing with Ben and his band, but when it got to be 8 PM, I reluctantly had to leave, as I had made reservations for 8:30 PM at Lusco’s in Greenwood. So I walked the long distance back to my car, and made the drive back into town.

A Void in Vaiden

Vaiden, Mississippi is a town on Highway 51 in Carroll County, and since 1873, the county seat of the second judicial district of that county. Carroll is one of a handful of Mississippi counties that have two county seats, generally due to historic difficulties of travel. Several years ago, I had explored the other county seat, Carrollton, with my friend Travis McFetridge, but when Sherena Boyce and I passed through Vaiden a week or so ago on our way to the Neshoba County Fair, I noticed an old juke joint on Highway 35, and decided that the town was worth a visit to see what was worth photographing.

The juke joint was the best find. Called the 21 Up Club, it was located right on the highway in town, with a sign decorated with music notes, and I took quite a few photographs of it. East of Highway 51, on Court Street, I found the ruins of a Greer’s Bar-B-Que restaurant, along what was otherwise a residential street, although many of the residences seemed abandoned.

But the downtown area was largely a loss, with the business district largely gone altogether, and no trace of the stores on Front Street, or the crowds of Black men I recall from a bus journey to Gulfport in the 1980’s. Vaiden suffered a tornado in 1990, and apparently it pretty well destroyed the downtown area. Of course the town had been suffering a degree of decline ever since Interstate 55 was completed to the west in 1973, but the tornado finished what had been started. Even the historic courthouse I could remember is gone, made into a Vaiden Community Park instead, with a Confederate monument in one corner the only trace that a courthouse had been there at all. The new courthouse is an ugly, garish 1990’s monstrosity with pointed roof, located on Front Street where the business district had been years ago. It is an incongruous modernism in the old town.

Also depressing is the fact that both of Vaiden’s schools appear to have been abandoned. The former Black high school, North Vaiden High School (later Percy Hathorn High School and then a Headstart center) seems to have been made into an antique mall or thrift store called The Prissy Hen. All the same, it was not open, and the entire building was gated off and closed. The former white high school, Vaiden High, appeared to have been turned into a community center. A few trucks and trailers were pulled up to it, and I could hear music coming from it, although whether a DJ or a live band I could never determine.

The only thing really left of value in Vaiden are some historic churches and homes, some of which seem to date from the 1870’s, judging from their architecture. A couple of these were located on hills, and might have survived the tornado as a result.

Briefly, I rode out to the southeast along Highway 35, taking some pictures at Carmack, the next town along the road. Like Vaiden, Carmack too has seen better days. Its school has been turned into a community center, and other than that, there is a Carmack Fish House that seems to do a brisk business.

Back in Vaiden, there was one club along Highway 35 that was beginning to get a crowd. A group of men were barbecuing under a tent, and cars were pulling up. I was not sure whether it was a special party or a usual Saturday afternoon at the club, but it looked as if it was going to be fun. But even with the windows down, I didn’t hear any music playing, and didn’t see a stage of any kind or any instruments. So I resisted the temptation to pull in there and see what was going on, and decided to head on west toward Greenwood.

A Hot Evening of Blues for a Mississippi State Senate Candidate in Senatobia

Old habits die hard in Mississippi, and candidates for office still see a value in hiring the old-time blues musicians to play for rallies. With Tuesday August 6 as election day, Friday night the 2nd was a busy evening indeed with blues musicians hired to play for campaign rallies in places like Senatobia and Holly Springs. Carlton E. Smith, a state senate candidate from Holly Springs is running for a senatorial district that combined Marshall County and Tate County, so he thought it wise to conceive of a campaign rally in Senatobia that celebrated the musical legacies of both counties. He ended up hiring Robert Kimbrough Sr from the Holly Springs area and R. L. Boyce from Como, Mississippi to play for his event in Senatobia’s Gabbert Park near downtown, on a late afternoon where temperatures were approaching 90 degrees.

When I arrived, perhaps because of the hot weather, almost nobody was in the park other than the candidate and members of his campaign staff. Robert Kimbrough was on stage, with the latest version of his band, the Blues Connection, consisting of J. J. Wilburn on drums, G. Cutta on second lead guitar and Artemas LeSeuer on bass. This line-up had played with Robert in the early days of his career, and had a rawer, more traditional sound than some of his more recent versions. Kimbrough calls his music “Cotton Patch Soul Blues” at least in part because of a community called Cotton Patch near the intersection of Highway 7 and Highway 72 in Benton County where Junior Kimbrough and Charlie Feathers used to play together at a juke in the late 1960’s. One notable point from Kimbrough’s performance on this afternoon was the extent to which he performed songs from his brother David Kimbrough, who passed away on July 4 this year. Ultimately, Robert had been hired to play for another rally for a candidate, J. Faulkner, at the Bottomless Cup in Holly Springs, so his band had to quickly break down and head to the other engagement.

Lightnin Malcolm had already been there with his son, and soon R. L. Boyce made a grand entrance, arriving with a whole lot of kids, some of them at least his grandchildren, and Ms. Carolyn Hulette from Senatobia, whose son Travis used to play guitar with R. L. before he moved to Nashville. Lightnin performed a couple of songs with Artemas LeSeuer’s wife Peggy Hemphill LeSeuer, better known as Lady Trucker, before R. L. came up on stage to perform. By that point, the weather had begun to cool off, and a small crowd of older Black folks had appeared, willing to dance to R.L, and Lightnin’s grooves. When R.L. finally slowed things down a bit, he improvised lyrics to some of his friends in the crowd, pointing out that God had awakened them that morning and that one day they would have to “meet that Man.” The secular and the sacred merge together in R.L. Boyce’s Hill Country vision.

As for politics, Carlton Smith spoke a couple of times to the crowd, but he kept it brief, and to the point, talking about the need for healthcare, and the need for reducing taxes and utility costs. By the end of the evening, there was a fair number of people in the park.

Unfortunately, one thing was different from the campaign rallies of old. Traditionally, in addition to the blues or fife and drum music, there would have been a whole hog roasted, with food for everyone. Times have changed, and the campaign only had cookies, chips and bottled waters. Kids enjoyed them well enough, but at evening’s end, I was starving, so I decided to make my way to the Windy City Grill in Como for a pizza. As was typical for a Friday night, the place was packed, with a Panola County band called the Hilltoppers playing in the front right corner of the bar. In one of the windows on Main Street was an announcement of an upcoming movie screening at the Como Library, a showing of Michael Ford’s documentary Homeplace which was filmed in the Hill Country in the early 1970’s, and which features footage that was shot in and around Como as well as other places in the area. The film will be screened at 2 PM on Saturday afternoon, August 24, the same weekend as Sharde Thomas’ GOAT Picnic at Coldwater. Both events are not to be missed, for true fans of the Hill Country blues.

Thacker Mountain Radio At the Neshoba County Fair

Sherena Boyce had told me that her father R. L. Boyce was scheduled to perform live on the Thacker Mountain Radio show at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Mississippi, and she wanted to go and take her niece Megan, so Megan could ride the rides and have some fun before school started. So on a hot Saturday afternoon, we headed out from Senatobia through Vaiden and Kosciusko to Philadelphia.

While of course I had heard of the Neshoba County Fair, I had never been to it, and wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew it was one of the oldest and largest county fairs in the nation, and that it had a reputation for Republican politics, and I wondered what kind of reception we might receive there in the age of Trump. Fortunately, the political speeches and rallies were not to occur until the middle of the week, and the focus on Saturday was live music, the Thacker Mountain Radio broadcast at the Founders’ Square pavilion, and the Eli Young Band on the horse track.

But nothing prepared me for the reality of the Neshoba County Fair. Although it is associated with Philadelphia, it is really held in an unincorporated community south of the city called Coldwater, and the first fair in 1897 was called the Coldwater Fair. Unlike the usual county fairs familiar to most Americans, the Neshoba County Fair has its roots in old church camp meetings and 19th-century gatherings that were called “chatauquas,” named for a famous camp in upstate New York. People camped at these kinds of events, and this became the tradition at the Neshoba County Fair as well. The early fairgoers planted the large trees that surround Founders’ Square and its pavilion, and there was once a hotel. Tents gave way to “cabins,” and the elaborate houses that now adorn the fairgrounds are still called “cabins,” but that is very much a misnomer for the elaborate two and three-story houses that adorn the fairgrounds. These have full electricity and kitchens, and cost upwards of $200,000. Some have been passed down from generation to generation within families, and some have signs that indicate that several families went in together to acquire them. Most of them are painted in bright colors and adorned with festive lights, and some have clever names. They are arrayed in streets with signs like “Sunset Strip” or “Happy Hollow” and they also surround the horse-racing track, the only such legal track in Mississippi. What with the laughter, crowds, smells of good food cooking, the atmosphere seems more like a seaside resort town than the piney woods of central Mississippi. The Neshoba fairgrounds has the atmosphere of a village, complete with a central square. Fairgoers who have cabins live at the grounds during the fair days.

Of course, the more familiar aspects of a fair exist as well, such as the games of the Midway, and the rides. Sherena took her niece Megan to the Midway, where she won prizes, and let her ride all the rides she wanted. I found a food truck from Lost Pizza Company, and got myself a slice of pepperoni pizza, and by that time, the Thacker Mountain live show taping was about to begin at the pavilion. In addition to R. L. Boyce, the show featured the Thacker Mountain house band, known as the Yalobushwackers, an 11-year-old blues and folk guitar sensation from Fort Worth, Texas named Jack Barksdale , and a novelist named Joshilyn Jackson who read from her latest novel. There was a fair crowd under the pavilion. R.L. had ridden down with his manager Steve Likens, and was hanging around backstage waiting for his opportunity to perform. They eventually had him perform two songs with the Yalobushwackers on the air, and then brought him back on stage at 9:30 for a half-hour set. The crowd was amazingly enthusiastic all night, and we were all treated very graciously. Of course the larger crowd was over at the horse track where the Eli Young Band was still performing at the end of the night at the pavilion.

R.L. and Steve had rooms in Philadelphia, but Sherena and Megan and I had to head back, and with the drive being three hours, we left at 10 PM. Although we were thoroughly tired, it had been a surprisingly fun and satisfying day. (The Thacker Mountain show that was taped last Saturday will broadcast on August 3).

Celebrating Dexter Burnside’s Birthday With Blues

Dexter Burnside is a son of the late R. L. Burnside, and was a drummer until health problems forced him to put down his sticks. But every July, along Mayes Road near Independence, Mississippi, his birthday party is celebrated with live blues from his brothers Duwayne, Garry and Joseph Burnside. It’s not necessarily open to the public, but people who know about it from the surrounding area come, and there were nearly a hundred people there this year, even a candidate for sheriff of Tate County, who made a brief speech to the crowd. Of course there was plenty of barbecue and catfish and plenty to drink. Picnics of this sort used to be the rule in the Hill Country during the summer months, but have sadly become rarer.

A Splash of Brilliant Color On Yazoo City’s Main Street

While driving from our hotel room in Yazoo City toward the Bentonia Blues Festival, we came into downtown Yazoo City on Main Street, looking for ice cream, as it was such a hot day. We didn’t find any frozen desserts, but we did find that the historic downtown buildings had been painted in an array of tropical colors. The scene almost resembled a Caribbean shopping district, such as Aruba or Curacao. Like other Mississippi cities, Yazoo City has had a hard time redeveloping its downtown, but there is starting to be some progress. We saw an antique mall, a restaurant and a small hotel. For my part, I was surprised by the massive size of Yazoo City’s downtown area. Although the city is only 40 miles from Jackson, it must have been a place of major importance at one time. We ended up having to backtrack to Sonic out on the bypass for ice cream, but I was glad we had stumbled onto the beautiful buildings downtown.

More Blues and Roots Music at Clarksdale Caravan Music Festival

At one time, as far as music festivals went, Clarksdale, Mississippi had one, the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival in August. Later, after former advertising executive Roger Stolle came to town, a second one, the venerable Juke Joint Festival took root, becoming the city’s largest festival, attracting people from all over the world. But now, Clarksdale’s burgeoning tourism business is driven by a succession of festivals, stretching nearly all year long. Music, film, art….all are celebrated in different events. The Clarksdale Caravan Music Festival is one of these newer events, held in May, with performances at Cat Head Delta Blues and at the New Roxy.

Like the better-known events, the Clarksdale Caravan is primarily about blues, although it is in a much more intimate setting, with only two stages, and therefore a lot more interaction between the artists and performers. On this year’s festival, there had been a considerable amount of rain up in Memphis, and I feared that could disrupt the event, as the Cat Head stage was outside, but in Clarksdale the sun was out, and shining.

My primary goal was to catch R. L. Boyce at the Cat Head stage, and I did. He was performing with Lightnin Malcolm and a violinist with whom I was not familiar. A small crowd had gathered under the tent in front of the store, and due to the threat of rain, I decided to do my photographic work with my iPhone instead of my Nikon. Indeed it did start raining briefly, and I eventually took refuge in the Meraki Coffee Roasters shop a block down the street.

In the afternoon, Lightnin Malcolm was scheduled to perform on the stage at New Roxy, a former theatre in the New World district of Clarksdale, but I arrived early, and nothing was happening yet, so I spent some time walking around the area shooting pictures of the buildings, many of which are sadly beginning to collapse. Local artists have attempted to brighten the ruins of what remains, with painted images and slogans, such as “I am of this city and this city is of me,” but the loss of such history is not easy to bear. The New Roxy is a better story, however, as it has survived, despite the loss of its roof, to become a popular music venue in Clarksdale.

Perhaps because of the rain threat, Malcolm’s performance took place in the smaller, lounge portion of the New Roxy, within the former box office of the theatre, rather than the larger outdoor stage. He performed primarily with his drummer, but also did a couple of tunes with R. L. Boyce, with whom he had played earlier at Cat Head. The crowd was fairly small but enthusiastic. It was ultimately a great day of music, and the rain threatened but never actually disrupted anything.

An Evening of Art at Arkansas’s Waverly Plantation

Historic Waverly Plantation in Crittenden County, Arkansas has suffered from the fact that it shares its name with a much better-known plantation home near Columbus, Mississippi, which was built in the 1850’s. By contrast, we are not sure of the age of the elaborate Greek Revival mansion at Waverly, Arkansas, as the dates of 1908 and 1913 are encountered in articles. A Memphian named Fontaine Martin Sr. leased the land from a deputy sheriff in Crittenden County in 1913, and decided to live on the property full-time in 1915, but by his recollection, the house was already there, although in what form or to what extent is unclear. Adding more confusion to the mix is the rumor that an older Waverly Plantation existed on the opposite side of the levee from the current home. I have been told at least once that the house was disassembled at its old location and reassembled in its current location, which could make the house, in theory, much older still.

What is clear is that the Arkansas Waverly, on the National Register of Historic Places, is a treasure, and for the last several years it has been the site of the annual Art on the Levee, a fundraiser for DeltaARTS, the local arts non-profit in West Memphis.

While I had not been able to attend the event last year, I wasthis year, and I am thrilled to have been there, as the house has been sold, and it is unclear whether Art on the Levee will be able to be held there going forward.

At least half of the charm of the event was the beautiful house itself, which really consists of three stories if one counts the basement. Every room was beautifully furnished and decorated, with art works prominently displayed. Lemonade was being served on the front porch as a guitar player played and sang. Most of the art works were displayed in the basement, where there was of course a considerable crowd.

In back, tables and chairs had been set around a large swimming pool, and a stage had been set for the musicians, a string band from Memphis. I was really surprised that a blues band had not been chosen, as the scenery greatly suggested blues, but at any rate, the musicians never played during the hour and a half I was there. The main food was provided by the Soul Fish Cafe, and consisted of catfish, which was actually quite delicious. But what really stood out to me were the freshly-made fried pies from Tacker’s Shake Shack in Marion, a place I had driven past many times but never eaten at. I’m used to the fried pies from Yoder’s in Whiteville that are sold at Bozo’s in Mason, and they are good, but these were even better, with a flakier crust, perhaps because they were being served the same day they were made. After getting thoroughly full, I wandered the environs, snapping photos.

Although I am saddened by the prospect of the Art on the Levee having to move to another location in 2020, I am at least glad that I got this final chance to see the grand and historic old home before the new owners take it over. A check of the Fletcher Creek Quadrangle map from 1966 shows that at one time Waverly had a church, a cemetery and an airstrip. I saw no trace of any of them on my visit, but it might be worth a trip back to see if I can find the cemetery, as long as I can do so without infringing on private property.

The Ruins of St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church, Amanca, Arkansas

West Memphis, with its dog racing track/casino and industries obscures the fact that Crittenden County, Arkansas was once Delta country, with plantations and sharecropper shacks. The road toward Waverly, south of West Memphis reminds you of that fact, and in fact resembles the long, flat roads of the Mississippi Delta. Here and there a silo or white-frame church is visible across the flat fields, divided by occasional bayous lined with trees and brush. To the right about four miles south of West Memphis, however, I came upon the ruins of a church that looked historic. A modern Pentecostal church had been built beside it, and presumably the new church owns the building and grounds, but there was no sign of the name of the older church, or when it had been built. With the sun going down, the old white structure looked majestic, despite its deteriorated condition, and I would have liked to have investigated it more closely, but I soon found that bees or wasps had made a nest in the structure, and were literally pouring out of it. With discretion being the better part of valor, I beat a hasty retreat.

The mystery as to what church it was I ultimately solved by looking at the Fletcher Lake Quadrangle map from 1966 of the United States Geological Survey. It showed that the church was called St. John’s Church, and that there was also a cemetery on the site. When the map was reprinted in 2010, only the cemetery is shown.

As the event at Waverly I was on my way to had started at 5 PM, I decided it was best to be on my way, but I captured some photos of the church, as it will likely eventually collapse from neglect. The community where that church was is shown on the 1966 map as Amanca, Arkansas, but there seems little of that community either nowadays. Evidently, it is just a name.

The Remnants of Hulbert, Arkansas

Crittenden County, Arkansas, despite being across the river from Memphis, has struggled to develop over the years. Although there were frequent attempts to develop a town on the west side of the river from Memphis, few of those efforts succeeded. Hopefield, the first town on the Arkansas side, was burned in the Civil War. Although it was rebuilt, it ultimately became unstable, due to changes in the Mississippi River, and apparently its site disappeared beneath the waters. Its nearby rival Mound City avoided that fate, but ended up on an oxbow lake called Danner Lake, removed from the river altogether. Almost no trace of that place remains. Later, in the 1880’s, Memphis papers mentioned a park called West End Park in a new town called West Memphis, but that location was probably not the city we know of today, and I have been unable to determine exactly where it was.

Instead, the first community to actually gain a degree of permanence was a railroad station called Hulbert, at some distance from the Mississippi River. It apparently consisted of a store, post office, railroad station and some houses, and eventually became substantial enough to form a school district (in Arkansas, school systems are formed by local communities and not by counties).

Hulbert was done in as well, but not by the river, or economic failure. Rather, the Bragg Lumber Company, taking advantage of the demand for famous Memphis hardwood lumber, formed a community in the early 1920’s which was initially named Bragg, Arkansas. Finding that the lumber from Bragg did not sell that well, the company sought to link its products to the famous hardwood lumber of the larger city of Memphis across the river, and thus renamed their new city West Memphis in 1926. So rapidly did the new city grow that it was soon nicknamed the “Wonder City.” Not long thereafter, the school system was renamed the Hulbert-West Memphis School District, and the day came when Hulbert was annexed into the city limits of West Memphis.

Today, few traces of Hulbert remain, but the ones that do are worth seeing. A few store buildings, noticeably the large two-story store facing the railroad that once belonged to the Dabbs family. Unfortunately, it is now a private residence, and cannot be toured, but it has been fully restored, and some whimsical decorations exist in the yard. At least one other building seems to date from that era. Sadly, new buildings have been allowed to spring up that have nothing in common with the original community or its aesthetics.